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Q+A with poet Kevan Anthony Cameron A.K.A Scruffmouth

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Q: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your work?

 

A: My name is Kevan Anthony Cameron, I’m also known as Scruffmouth. I'm a spoken word artist and a scribe. Basically, I'm a writer and a performer. I was born in Edmonton Alberta and my family is Jamaican. A lot of my cultural sensibilities come from my upbringing and my culture, and that is very much a part of my work…

It was probably about ten years ago, almost 11 years ago actually, that I first performed spoken word at a poetry slam and that kind of opened up a new world that I still live in and I kind of use all of my experiences now to either express myself now or gain employment.

 

Q: How has your Jamaican heritage influenced you work?

 

A: When I was in elementary school, my mom was a teacher but on the weekends she was an instructor at a Saturday school that was organized through the Jamaica association… And my dad used to have these parties in the basement and play reggae music or soul or even some rap music. So from my mom and my dad basically came a foundation that I was able to identify when I started listening to hip-hop, I knew exactly what it was and where it came from. Then that became my chosen culture, it's still a branch from that larger tree but it very much influenced me with my work…

It definitely influences me because I always thought of my writing as lyrics. When I gained a deeper understanding of what dub poetry is and the origins of dub poetry in Canada, being so foundational to professional spoken word arts practice. I also immediately knew that I was a dub poet and that dub poetry lays the foundation for hip-hop lyricism as well as some spoken word performance. So, I kind of pay homage to that by going further and trying to advance the cause of the dub poets, instead of the rapper. So even rap, which is rhythm and poetry that stereotypically has this end rhyme function…Lyrically, you are a slave to the beat, whereas the dub poet frees the verse from the beat and does not even require a beat sometimes to be performed. So I definitely identify as a dub poet, and in that identification, it grounds me in Jamaican culture and experience.

 

Q: What was it like being part of The Great Black North? Can you tell me a little bit more about the book?

 

A: I met Valerie Mason-John at a Black Canadian Studies Association conference in Edmonton and she kind of shared her idea and also she was pursuing an answer to the question, 'what is black Canadian poetry?'…So she asked me if I would be interested in co-editing an anthology that looked at that and so I was definitely interested in that idea because…I knew it was a timely endeavor, and it would be able to capture a lot of the spoken word generation that was doing their thing and [were] not necessarily as concerned with it being in print or with it being in publication, as maybe the more established generation, but still being worthy of being archived. That was one of the things that drew me to working on the anthology and I had some decent networks especially for my peers and colleagues to send the call for submissions out to. So working on the anthology I found it definitely generated a buzz and all of my concerns were validated once the anthology was published because the same spoken word artists who were not that concerned with their work being in print were super excited and happy that it was in print because now they had something concrete that they could present to their family or to their folks, and it would put a smile on their faces and make them proud. There are even poets in the book who don't necessarily perform anymore that will pick up the book… and read the piece that’s in the book because it's there to be read.

Q: Did you end up finding the answer to 'What is black Canadian Poetry?'

 

A: Yeah, and we found that the answer varies. That was really the only thing in the call for submissions that could be construed as a theme or topic and it was good to see that some contributors…considered it more loosely and some more specifically. It definitely will give you not only an answer to 'what is black Canadian poetry,' but the anthology itself, it is a great book because it has some of the best Canadian writing and the best Canadian writers in it.  So one of the answers to 'what is black Canadian poetry' is it's actually Canadian poetry because in addition to the themes of identity, history, sometimes community, in addition to those themes and topics coming up, there was also the more understated answer to the question 'what is Canadian poetry,' or what does it mean to be Canadian and I think that is often overlooked. From coast to coast in Canada, the so-called black people have had a very foundational role in forming and defining Canada as well, so that also comes through in the pages of the anthology.

 

Q: I saw on The Great Black North's website that one of the purposes of the book was to remix Canadian history and the history of black Canada, so how does the book go about remixing history?

 

A: …So the remix is almost keeping up to date in print with what is going on in the world outside, [our] social history….The book itself is a remix because it is bringing that hip-hop generation into the mix. The voices are not just the established writers that we know. It's not just Afua Cooper, and George Elliot Clarke, and Lillian Allen, and Andrea Thompson. We also have hip-hop lyricism. We have Ian Kamal in the book, we have Ian Keteku and Ikenna Onyegbula, Brandon Wint and Komi Olaf, who at one point had formed one of the most powerful poetry troupes in almost any poetry slam called 'The Recipe'…It's obviously very difficult to try and capture the essence of a spoken word performance in a print form…

There is a thing, until the lion becomes the scholar, history will be written by the hunter and maybe this example of The Great Black North: Contemporary African Canadian Poetry maybe the lion as scholar, the lion as dub poet, spoken word artist, slam poet writer, the lion as historian does definitely appear and has authored his own work. In that sense, the remix is simply a takeover of the sound booth. It is taking out the DJs who were telling the stories and it was not their stories to tell. That's always important to remember when we're discussing black history, is who's story is it to tell? Is it black his-story or is it our story? So even though in this example, maybe the hunter published the book but the African definitely had the hand in contributing the essence of the book. Then maybe the hunter is actually learning something from the lion, instead of just trying to sell its skin.

 

Q: What do you think this book means in the greater landscape of Canadian Poetry?

 

A: …We've seen different dots connecting to form a big picture and I think The Great Black North definitely gives you a sense of what that picture looks like, what it reads like, who contributed to the picture, who has been on the scene and has established the frame for the picture to be in, and definitely who the emerging voices are…So it has definitely created a greater sense of familiarity, especially in Canada...the spoken word community but even the African Canadian literary community. We all know each other, we're family so this is almost like the photo album, you know family photo album, but instead of a photo we have sounds and words.

I think what this means in terms of the Canadian literary scene, again the Canadian literary scene has produced another great anthology specific to people of African descent who have something to do with this country…It will not only open doors but open people's minds and perspectives about what poetry is because especially with spoken poetry, in the beginning is the word, so we learned to write from speaking and not the other way around. Often we get kind of confused or lost or we with think that writing is the most important thing or maybe the only thing, but of course that’s not true. I think, again, the remix serves to remind us that this is poetry that should be read aloud, this is not only something to be looked at in a book. Maybe I can catch one of these poets at a slam or a spoken showcase… Another thing that I've noticed is that in terms of poet laureates across Canada, I bet you it's almost 50/50 if a poet laureate in any given city is a spoken word artist or a literary poet, whereas a few years ago it would have been almost primarily literary poets. I think this is another way that the spoken word generation or the hip-hop generation is coming into the scene and saying 'hey, this is what we do, this is what we're about and this is why it’s valuable.'

Q: How do think poetry can be used to educate people, especially with issues going on now like #BlackLivesMatter and Black History Month?

 

A: Some of this sentiment popped up in the discussion forum, an afternoon of poetry with The Great Black North at Harbourfront and Dwayne Morgan I thought put it very eloquently, you know even a slogan like 'Black Lives Matter' well that’s a poem in and of itself. But whom is that poem intended for? Who is it meant to entice? I would have to agree with Dywane Morgan when he said that it acts as really a slogan for black people. That's the slogan for the black community in terms of empowerment and esteem, that's something that we have to acknowledge as a human right. Now, if we're going to address the human family, we should emphasize that human lives matter…

As a poet I am very comfortable using colourful language, but I'm not so comfortable when that language is kind of being left to, let's say the settlers and colonists of European descent to phoneticize, as Wayde Compton used that word, to identify someone or to label someone or categorize someone as black. That is part of the problem when other people are phoneticizing humans as black, because I think that is part of the attack. You can even look at history and it was when they passed the black codes and the slave laws in the US that’s why governor Douglas in D.C. invited the black pioneers, the black Californians to come and settle. The reason those Californians had their rights stripped was because they were now being labeled as black or as a slave because the two were synonymous…

So when I am trying to write or live in the reality that I want to see manifest, I mean I already know that my life matters. I am not going to use language that is divisive, not only divisive but is essentially assigning a status. I might not use that language because in the poem of trying to use poetry or language to affect change in the society that you live in, you have to be wary of what words you're using…

I thought when Dwayne had contributed that at the panel discussion, it really made a lot of sense and I think it captured the essence of what we're trying to communicate, what a lot of artists are trying to communicate… We definitely get the sentiment... but at the same time we do have to recognize that the reason black lives matter is because we are really responsible for authoring our own destiny, you could call it self-determination. In terms of being a futurist, which is one of the really good things I've seen about Black History Month, especially this month… one of the good things I've seen is that we're more about where do we go from here. So we have already established that our lives matter and we have already established that human lives matter, so where do we go from here. How can we organize as humans to go and do the right thing?

 

 "Colour Me Maroon" by: Scruffmouth https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDVrRC5-i7w 

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